Del McCoury Keeps Innovative Creative Flair Alive & Well Via ‘Almost Proud’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Even at the ripe old age of 83, bluegrass legend Del McCoury is still enjoying playing & recording music as much as he did when he first started. “I’m as excited about listening to new music today as the day I started—finding a new tune or a story that tickles me” explains the amiable guitarist when discussing the song selection for his group’s upcoming studio album Almost Proud. (Available 2/18)

What began as a casual pandemic-inspired listening session soon evolved into Del poring over more than 200 songs, including some long-forgotten compositions that had been locked away in a box in his music room for over a decade. McCoury continues, “This album is the best of what I heard while the world was on a pause.”

The end result is a strong collection of a dozen tracks mostly comprised of originals and bluegrass & country classics that reflect a blue-collar mindset with lyrical tropes that run a wide, if somewhat clichéd, gamut, covering everything from lost loves to drinkin’ & cheatin’ as well as the virtues of a hard-day’s work. Heck, there’s even a song dedicated to West-Virginian working-class hero “Smilin’” Sid Hatfield, who notoriously stood up to the oppressive coal mining companies before being assassinated on the McDowell County Courthouse steps over a century ago. 

Almost Proud, The Del McCoury Band’s sixteenth studio album, and first since 2019’s Del McCoury Still Sings Bluegrass, starts off on an upbeat note with the original title-track “Almost Proud”, featuring some lively fiddle work from Jason Carter and a catchy banjo-driven melody courtesy of 2015 International Bluegrass Music Association’s banjo player of the year – and Del’s son – Rob McCoury. “Almost Proud’s” lyrics are also somewhat auto-biographical in nature, with lines like: “I started life down at the bottom / There were those who kept me there / And I did things I’m not proud of / To see if anybody cared / That’s the wrong kind of attention / I was young and dumb and loud / Now I’m quiet and I’m older / Would you believe I’m almost proud?”

The opening track is followed up with Kris Kristofferson’s obscure “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” and showcases McCoury’s masterful ability to reimagine timeless material as he manages to convincingly impart the lyric’s heartbreaking underlying premise of lost-love, albeit with a slightly more spirited arrangement than Kristofferson’s sullen offering. 

A pair of covers, Flatt & Scruggs “Rainbow of my Dreams”, a song Del first heard sung by a young Lester Flatt in the 1940’s, and “My Little Darlin’”, a bluesy J.D. Hutchinson number that was popularized in bluegrass circles by legendary group Hot Rize, proceed another McCoury original, “Running Wild”. As the story goes, “Running Wild” was originally started by Del over 15 years ago but was ultimately forgotten about until mandolinist – and Del’s other son – Ronnie McCoury discovered it and played a portion of the long-lost demo for his father, resulting in a classic cheating song that affords Del the opportunity to flaunt his impressive vocal range with some trademark high notes during the chorus. 

Another original tune, “Brown Paper Bag”, is followed up by the album’s standout moment, “Honky Tonk Nights”, an energetic song from the somewhat unknown Canadian bluegrass duo Dick Smith & Mike O’Reilly that features country music superstar Vince Gill matching Del note for note with his perfectly-pitched high vocal harmonies before taking over lead vocal duties for the second verse.

“Once Again”, one of two tracks on the album to feature pianist Josh Shilling, who also composed the song along with Bill Whyte, was included primarily due to McCoury’s self-professed love for Jerry Lee Lewis, a tribute which pays off admirably thanks to Shilling’s authentic rockabilly playing style. 

The album’s homestretch begins with “Sid”, a Dylan-esque yarn written by Alan “Cathead” Johnson & David Grubb about the aforementioned “Smilin” Sid Hatfield whose anti-capitalism undertones still resonate today before giving way to the forlorn kiss-off number “The Misery You’ve Earned” which features some bouncy bass-lines from Alan Bartram underneath a dramatic vocal delivery from Del. 

The LP comes to a satisfying conclusion with a pair of diverse covers, starting with “Working Man’s Wage”. Written by Wynn Varble & Leslie Satcher and popularized by country music heavyweight Trace Adkins in 1999, “Working Man’s Wage” is sung from the perspective of a man who grew up in a working-class family as he tells the story of the struggles previous generations faced in order to provide for their children. The final track is a breezy bluegrass-infused cover of the California Honeydrops gospely “Other Shore” that would fit right in at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival or a Southern Baptist Sunday morning church service. 

Simply put, Del McCoury is bluegrass. As a bonafide musical pioneer, McCoury finds himself nestled comfortably in the pantheon of living legends that includes the likes of Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney & Herbie Hancock, among others. Whether it’s faithfully reinterpreting the traditional standards of bluegrass stalwarts like Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe – the latter of whom hired Del to handle guitar and lead vocal duties for his group The Blue Grass Boys in 1963 – or collaborating with artists from myriad genres such as folk-rock-country singer Steve Earle, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and even jamband-deities Phish; the octogenarian firebrand remains as innovative and relevant as ever.

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